Combating COVID-19 with The Help of AI: Advantages and Limitations

The COVID-19 pandemic is currently spreading across the world in an unprecedented way, which has affected almost every aspect of human life. It is reported that prices of agricultural commodities have fallen 20 percent as bulk demands from hotels and restaurants nosedived. Worldwide closures of educational institutions are impacting nearly 900 million learners, according to UNESCO’s estimates. Airlines have cut hundreds of thousands of flights because of international travel restrictions. The coronavirus has also destroyed the world’s labor market. Workers are now facing higher unemployment rates and more likely to take forced unpaid leaves.

While medical personnel on the front lines are risking lives to save patients from COVID-19, healthcare experts and data specialists are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) as they monitor and tackle the crisis. This article attempts to provide a preliminary evaluation of how far AI has gone in that aspect, and to identify some of its possible limitations.

AI, already familiar to many in the biotech sector, is playing a substantial role in epidemiologic data analysis and decision-making regarding public health control measures. Analytics tools, by crunching huge amounts of data that would be impossible for human to process, can assist researchers in understanding the virus’ biology and accelerating treatment development. Scientists also adopt AI in detection and prevention phases. Algorithms, for example, are able to quickly identify transmission pathways of the disease and forecast how it may spread from a multitude of datasets.

AI applications are also seen in frontline hospitals, which relieves medical staff from overloaded duties and alleviates their exposure to the virus. Image recognition software, for instance, interprets each chest x-ray result in less than one second, more efficient than many experienced clinicians can do. Robots are stepping into wards to deliver food, beverages and medicine to patients who remain in isolation. AI also makes a difference in building a well-managed logistics system by rapidly distributing test kits and transporting samples among different health facilities.

These advantages, however, need to be examined in a realistic understanding of its limitations. There are things AI assuredly does not perform well and discerning nuances of human emotions is one of them. Aside from effective treatments, patients also need to feel secure and supported, and that’s what human caregivers will always do best. When it comes to behavior patterns, AI proves incompetent in habit changing and conflict resolution. Experts say the undergoing Black Lives Matter movement, which means large public gatherings, have likely contributed to a spike in COVID-19 cases, but AI-powered technologies are incapable of coping with the problem.

Artificial intelligence is being utilized in several different ways, as outlined above, to thwart the current pandemic. It is irrational to presume, though, AI will be the savior of human lives against the contagious illness. It is a tool after all, and the value of its applications is defined by humans who design and exploit it. In the COVID-19 crisis, human wisdom and creativity is what ultimately matters in leveraging the power of AI.

About the authors:

Song Haitao is Deputy Dean at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. Liu Yuechen is a research associate at Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Research Institute.

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